By Dr. Harold A. Black

One of the most laughable bumper stickers out there is the one that says “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” Are teachers really responsible for kids learning to read? If so, then teachers are also responsible for kids not being able to read. If you look at the abysmal statewide reading scores for Tennessee, precious few kids can read at grade level. The scores are an embarrassment. The Tennessee State Board of Education is a failure and should be disbanded. I would replace all local boards of education and fire all superintendents where any county’s proficiency scores were less than 50 percent. Below is the “proficiency” chart for Knox County. How we tolerate these scores is a mystery to me.

Tennessee is not alone. The Wall Street Journal reported that the state of Massachusetts may take over the Boston city schools because of their dismal record of educating school kids. Despite a $1 billion budget, only 25% of black elementary students read at grade level. However, I bet you that those kids are well versed on climate change, CRT and gender identity.

The inability of teachers to teach kids to read is blamed on the kids. Consider that the head of the Chicago teachers union once said that the increased accountability demanded by the city administration over the dismal performance of the school system was “unfair” because “poor kids can’t learn”! Of course, this is nonsense. Consider that virtually all these students can recite every word to the most complicated rap after only three listenings. Indeed, some inner city teachers are using rap as a teaching tool in the classroom. My limited experience with local second graders convinced me that all children are able to read at grade level unless they have a learning disability. But most can’t.

Why? First, the students do not have an advocate who holds schools accountable for failure. I know, you say “What about the board of education?” Or “what about the PTA?” If these were advocates for the students, then they would not tolerate the miserable reading and math scores in our schools. Lack of achievement is always laid at the feet of the students when the real culprit is the method of instruction utilized. The most dedicated teacher is doomed to fail given how they are taught to teach. Sure, there are high achievers but studies show that these students excel regardless of the method employed.

The Educational Industrial Complex – textbook authors, textbook publishers, colleges of education, accreditation boards and unions – has a vested interest in traditional methods of instruction and will defend despite the dismal outcomes. Yet nontraditional methods such as Direct Instruction have been shown to produce proficiency rates in at-risk students that are equal to and often higher than those for students in high income districts.

It’s time that we quit excusing the teachers and blaming the kids for failure to achieve. Although there is considerable merit in changing how we pay teachers whose salaries can be read off a chart that shows years and education, the main culprit is method of instruction. If we want kids to achieve, then we must blow up the current system used by our government schools. Although charter schools and private schools are an improvement, they still may be hampered by inflexible accreditation standards that have little to do with learning. Direct Instruction was rejected locally on the grounds that schools would lose their accreditation because it required “too much reading!”

If our schools were a corporation, the board of directors would fire the CEO. Given the poor performance of our schools, I would give the superintendent a raise only if based performance and proficiency improved. That would provide an incentive to do better. I only wish we could unleash American ingenuity and innovation on the school system. I would put out for bid contracts, collect the taxes and turn the school system over to private enterprise. The contracts would be reviewed periodically and if certain metrics were not met, then the contractor would be fired and a new one hired. Then our children would be able to read.